Clean Energy: Too Expensive? Or Our Only Choice?

Featured Clean Energy: Too Expensive? Or Our Only Choice?

In order to spare future generations the devastating environmental and health effects of climate change, many scientists say we must stop using virtually all fossil fuels by 2050.

If you think that’s a tall order, it is, but several cities across the U.S. — like San Diego, Burlington, and Aspen (as well as big corporations like Apple, Google, and Coca Cola) have stepped up to the plate and pledged to cut fossil fuels from their energy diet.

That includes our city of Portland, Maine, where the mayor and several city councilors presented a resolution to get the city running on 100 percent clean energy by 2040.

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Jack Doherty of ReVision Energy installs a solar panel onto the roof of Maine Historical Society's offsite collections management facility in Portland Wednesday, Apr. 18. Photo By Dan D’Ippolito / Maine Historical Society

You're going to see some significant changes in Portland over the next 10 years,” said Spencer Thibodeau, the chair of the sustainability and transportation committee who drafted the resolution — essentially a revamp of the council’s 2007 Climate Action Plan. “We need to do this.”

I’ve previewed what those changes will be in this feature, as well as some of the challenges in implementing them, but first, an important question:

What is clean energy?

One of the tricky parts in drafting clean energy policy is that people often hold different understandings of what it is, sometimes regarding renewable energy as synonymous with green or sustainable energy.

While the terms do have some overlapping meanings, there are some key differences, mostly involving the source of the energy.

For example, wood is a renewable resource, but does that mean pellet stoves produce clean energy? Not a chance.

Green energy is an umbrella term that’s mostly used for marketing purposes. A supermarket can “go green” by recycling its waste and minimizing electricity usage, but technically so can a big oil company by installing a couple wind turbines. Those in the thick of alternative energy conversations, like Frank Heller at Katahdin Energy Works, don’t have much faith in the term, as it simply means that some steps were taken to minimize a carbon footprint.

“Even energy is confused by people who don’t separate ‘fuels’ from the energy they produce and the processes they use to transform fuel into either heat or electricity,” said Hellar. “There's a lot of wiggle room as far as what clean energy is and what another person thinks it is.”

'Sustainable' is more of an economic term while 'renewable' refers to the energy source itself. Burning wood for heat is technically renewable, seeing as wood’s both natural and plentiful, but it’s not sustainable because the process of planting more trees and harvesting more wood wouldn’t last indefinitely on a grand scale.

Clean energy is derived from renewable natural sources and doesn’t produce any harmful byproducts. It comes in three basic flavors: wind, solar, and water (or hydroelectric) and Portland dreams of utilizing all three. But is that possible?

Switching out the lights

The city’s sustainability coordinator, Troy Moon, told me that the first step in any initiative is to become more efficient.

And getting Portland on track to 100 percent clean energy starts with replacing the 6,800 high-pressure sodium city lights with LEDs.

Mood said that this will drastically reduce energy consumption by potentially as much as two-thirds.

“They're going to significantly change how the city is lit,” said Moon. “We're working with a consultant contractor called 10 Collected Solutions. They'll help us do the switch out by hopefully later this summer.”

According to Stouch Lighting, a lighting efficiency blog (yes, such things exist), LEDs have several advantages over their 1970s era sodium counterparts. For starters, they have virtually no warm-up time, which is perfect considering how often public lights need to be dimmed or turned on and off. LEDs are also cheaper to maintain, easier to dispose of safely (the sodium ones tend to burn), and waste much less on energy through excess heat. They last longer too, up to 100,000 hours longer.

On top of all that, sodium lights have the worst color spectrum on the market (think that hazy, yellow glow) while LEDs open up all the colors on the spectrum with their bright, white waves. Should Moon's plan come to pass, Portland’s literally going to look more vibrant at night, while reducing the energy needed to light up the city.

The only downside to this bright future is that the start-up costs for installing 6,800 LEDs is quite expensive; replacing one bulb costs anywhere from $800 to $1,000. “We’re negotiating with CMP right now,” said Moon. “Hopefully the city will buy out all the old lights.”

Lights outside are a good start, but what about inside?

Cleaning up the electrical grid

According to ISO New England, the non-profit corporation responsible for keeping electricity flowing through six states, natural gas makes up about 50 percent of the New England power grid, nuclear about 31 percent, and renewables around 10 percent.

The organization released their annual “regional electricity outlook report” earlier this year, in which executives noted that fuel security is at risk in New England because there are concerns about the ability of natural-gas-fired generators to dependably access adequate fuel during winter cold snaps.

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Graphic from ISO New England's "Regional Electricity Outlook Report." This chart shows how the source of energy for New England's power grid has changed over time.

This puts reliability at risk and drives up costs, but according to the report, so does the push toward natural gas and renewables.

“At the heart of the problem are factors that the ISO has been warning about for some time now but does not have the authority to directly address,” said board chair of ISO New England, Philip Shapiro. “Natural gas-fired power plants can’t always access adequate gas because natural gas transportation and storage infrastructure haven't kept pace with demand from the electricity sector.”

“Actions being taken or considered by the states to reach those goals, meanwhile, may inadvertently undercut the ability of the wholesale marketplace to continue delivering on its promise of securing reliable, competitively priced electricity for New England today and into the future.”

While ISO New England has been actively refining systems and market rules to integrate renewable resources, the CEO and President Gordon Van Welie said in the report that the “region is decades away from installing enough renewable resources.”

“For the foreseeable future, the region will require resources such as natural-gas-fired units that can do what wind and solar resources cannot: make large contributions to meeting regional electricity demand; run in any type of weather and at any time of day; quickly change output levels; and provide essential grid stability services.”

The experts over at ISO New England have been grappling with the same dilemma that environmental sustainability advocates here in Portland (and beyond) have been for decades: how do you balance a competitive market that relies on fuel security with meeting state carbon-reduction goals?

Solar power in Portland and beyond

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Sunrise on Casco Bay. Photo By: Teresa Flisiuk.

Many think that solar has both the potential to meet society’s voracious energy demands and help lower our carbon footprint.

But while folks like Troy Moon would love to see more solar panels and wind turbines powering and heating homes in Portland, they say that it won’t overtake natural gas anytime soon.

Although building and installing solar panels is getting cheaper every year (GTM research reports that back in 2008 it cost about $8 a watt; now it’s down to half that, and still falling), solar power generates just .4 percent of America’s electricity.

“We certainly have a lot of rooftops that would be suitable for solar panels,” said Moon. “But we don't have that much open space. We don't have enough footprint in Portland to give enough solar capacity.”

And although solar technology is getting cheaper, and saves up to $18,000 in energy costs over 20 years, the upfront installation costs around $12,000, much more than the average person is willing to pay, which is why we won’t see much solar powering residential areas.


Organizations like Efficiency Maine and the Natural Resources Council of Maine work relentlessly to push policies that incentivize solar technology in spite of the LePage-appointed members of the Public Utilities Commission who would rather roll back progress. Despite the opposition, these organizations have helped over a dozen municipalities in Maine build solar arrays.

Members of the NRCM gathered at the State House in Augusta last week to rally behind LD 1373, An Act to Protect and Expand Access to Solar Power in Maine, a bill that would protect net metering and re-establishing Maine’s solar energy rebate program for small businesses and low-middle-income Mainers. According to them, more solar power in Maine wouldn’t just be a big step toward a clean energy future, but it would stimulate job growth—indeed, according to a recent Vox article, there are now twice as many solar jobs in the U.S. than coal jobs.

“Maine is at a critical crossroads on solar power,” said Dylan Voorhees, Climate and Clean Energy Project Director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “Solar power presents an opportunity to expand our economy, protect our environment, create jobs, and lower energy costs. But the PUC (Public Utilities Commission) net-metering rollback is so extreme that it includes a new tax on solar. (It's) akin to utilities charging people who use less electricity an extra fee because they dry their clothes on a clothesline. Inaction by the Legislature, combined with the anti-solar action by the Public Utilities Commission, threatens to move Maine further backward.”

Here in Portland, two big solar initiatives are nearing their final stages.

Last month, after fundraising $400,000, the city worked with Revision Maine to install over 300 solar panels to power the Portland Public Library and the Maine Historical Society. This is the first time that the National Endowment for the Humanities has funded a solar project ($300k of a $400k project) designed to support the long-term preservation of historical materials.

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Zach Good of ReVision Energy installs a solar panel onto the roof of Maine Historical Society's offsite collections management facility in Portland Wednesday, Apr. 18. Photo By: Dan D’Ippolito/Maine Historical Society

The same is planned for City Hall with another solar array (first proposed in 2015) propping up on the Ocean Avenue landfill sometime this summer. It’s estimated the operation will cost the city over $1.5 million and power 3.5 percent of municipal operations.

“We would need 120 acres of solar panels to power all of our municipal operations,” said councilor Thibodeau. “That’s why we need to diversify.”

(Check out all the other ways the Portland’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee plans to reach their clean energy goal in the sidebar.)

But what about wind power?

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Photo by Peter Kirkeskov Rasmussen via Flickr.

Not looking good, according to Moon. He said that Portland’s not in a good spot to truly harness the free and awesome power of the wind. He’s arrived at this point after analyzing data from a Peaks Island study that built a special tower and measured the wind over the course of a year.

“Unfortunately it wasn't suitable,” said Moon. “There's not enough wind. Maybe on some small applications but not on a grid scale.”

There could be opportunities further offshore, or elsewhere along the Maine coast for wind farms, but some think, with Gov. LePage put off by the big investment, progress on it has stalled.

Jon Voight from Maine Marine Composites told The Portland Press Herald that Maine “missed a great opportunity” back in 2012 when the Norwegian company Statoil proposed a $120, wind farm project off of Boothbay Harbor but left Maine after LePage forced them to revisit the deal.

“The Governor has blocked so much policy that six years in, Maine finds itself falling behind as clean energy technology advances and other states modernize their policies to fit the new reality,” said Judy Berk from the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Challenges lie ahead

The biggest challenges to transitioning Portland (and Maine in general) into a low-carbon community is balancing costs and accessible technologies.

For example, according to Moon, the city is looking to electrify its fleet of city vehicles (only four are electric cars now), but the technology isn’t quite yet there for heavier vehicles like snowplows or construction equipment.  

“It's difficult to say if we're going to move to 100 percent electric vehicles in the short term,” said Moon. “We need to be able to have enough equipment and be strategic with where we put our money.”

“How are you going to power a plow truck with electricity?” asked Thibodeau. “That technology doesn’t exist today. It will develop over time.”

So, like with most big barriers in life, the issue is money. While huge investments toward renewable energy have paid off in the long run—take Norway, Las Vegas, and Rockport, Missouri, three examples of communities powering 95 percent of their operations with hydroelectric, wind, or solar power respectively—there are still plenty of Mainers who aren’t ready to foot the initial, admittedly massive bill toward these technologies.

“We need to focus on getting the grid that runs our society to be based on clean energy,” said Moon. “But we can't do it all ourselves. There needs to be state and federal policy and action at the utility level.”

And there might be yet another big speed bump on the road to a completely green future.

Addressing the culture of consumption

Frank Heller, the owner of Katahdin Energy Works, is very much a clean energy advocate. He’s outfitted 75 homes and businesses with solar and hydropower in Maine. Heller said that there are downsides to consider when it comes to alternative energy.

According to Heller, you can’t balance cost and energy generation without factoring in consumption. How much energy are people actually using?

“This fuels policy,” he said. “Unfortunately, our energy consumption has gone up.”

Heller gave me an example of this increase with a story of a Bowdoin dorm. In 2015, it was outfitted with LED fixtures to become more energy efficient, but because the electricity usage inside was so high (the damn college kids kept all their tech plugged in), the building ending up being less efficient.

Heller said that he knows plenty of people who “live off the grid” — some in boats year-round docked in marinas — they're highly conscious and conservative of their consumption habits paying careful attention to when something’s plugged in, and for how long it’s plugged in. This lifestyle, he says, would run contrary to many people’s ideas of modern comforts, and the very nature of our culture of consumption.

“It's that kind of ethos that permeates a lot of these discussions,” said Heller. “And that's the conundrum.”

Before signing off our telephone discussion, Heller offered two more bits of cautionary advice to those gungho about clean energy: don’t rush into it without doing the economics, and figure out if your initiatives will have an actual measurable impact on climate change. Citing the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which did lower CO2 emissions measurably, Heller asks, But did it mitigate any global warming?

“Nobody knows,” he said. “I've watched these fads come and go.”

Although he doesn’t believe there’s a scientific consensus linking CO2 emissions and temperature change, and keeps a little chunk of coal on his desk (true story), Heller does believe climate change is happening. He just thinks humans will be able to adapt to it without much trouble.

“There are people who sell fears and crises, and then the causality is lost in the hysteria,” said Heller. “They exaggerate these worst case scenarios.”

The issue of adapting to climate change is of course complex. While Heller's optimism may prove prescient regarding Maine's ability to adapt, we've already seen multiple reports this year of third world countries ravaged by stronger storms and higher tides. Some island nations in the Pacific, like the Maldives or the Republic of Kiribati, could literally be swallowed whole by the ocean. According to a report from the University of East Anglia, climate change puts over 1.3 billion people at risk, many of whom live in poor countries with an economy dependent on agriculture. 

That’s not to say that Heller thinks we should do nothing. He does support Portland’s clean energy plan, but stressed that our society also needs to work on addressing the root cause of the issues raised in this article, primarily our culture of excess consumption.

“It would be very interesting to see how much gasoline people in Portland use,” Heller joked.

Heller shared some pretty ambitious alterations to our culture and its relationship with consumption and energy. These included installing floating housing units on Back Bay (he called it seascaping), harvesting more food from the ocean, building more hydroelectric plants on surrounding rivers, looking into tidal power, and encouraging residents to live on boats.

“A blend of constant hydroelectric/tidal power with some micro solar grids is definitely a possibility for Portland,” he said.

Whether you take the activist view, like Moon or Thibodeau, that climate change is a serious urgent threat or the cautiously optimistic adaptive approach like Heller, one aspect of the clean energy debate is settled and even bolstered by current market forces: in a planet of finite resources, utilizing renewable energy sources is the only future.

“If we don’t do what we’re doing, we’d see more floods and we’d be losing money,” said Thibodeau.

Want to write angry words at me for not even mentioning the contentious nuclear power issue? My email is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Portland’s Progress Toward 100 Percent Clean Energy:

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Spencer Thibodeau the chair of the Sustainability and Transportation Committee.

It’s important to note that these goals only go toward making the city’s municipal operations (government, schools, parking enforcement) reliant on clean energy, not the residential and private sectors. But damn, wouldn’t it be utopian if every resident lived sustainably?

Create a Green Team - Ongoing

Sustainable Behavior Campaign for Employees: Not Started Yet

Foster Student Support - Ongoing

Environmental Preferable Purchasing - Not Started Yet

Educational and Informational Partnerships - Ongoing

Update Emissions Inventory - Ongoing

Conduct Public Outreach - Ongoing

Comprehensive Energy Audits - Complete

Explore an Energy Service Company -  Complete

Upgrade lighting, HVAC, and water - Complete

Adopt Comprehensive Energy Policy - Not Started

Adopt Green Building Standards for City Buildings - Complete

Purchase Renewable Energy Credits - Ongoing

Explore Small Scale Solar Energy Generation (Ocean Ave. Landfill) - Complete

Reduce Fuel Consumption From City Fleet - Ongoing

Route Optimization Software - Not Started

Enforce Anti-Idling Policy - Ongoing

Transportation Demand Mgmt for Employees - Ongoing

Retrofit Streetlights to LED - Ongoing

Upgrade Pumps and Pump Stations - Ongoing


Last modified onWednesday, 24 May 2017 13:41